Book Reports

Book Report: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

The Big Idea

Building a meaningful and satisfying career relies on building rare and valuable skills, rather than “following your passion.”

Favorite Sentence

In Wrzesniewski’s research, the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.


9.5/10. I frequently gift this book to many of my millennial friends. I think it’s required reading for anyone entering the workforce

My notes

Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

A job, in Wrzesniewski’s formulation, is a way to pay the bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.       
In Wrzesniewski’s research, the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.           

Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important
Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do

Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people               

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’… but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’               

“Stop focusing on these little details,” it told me. “Focus instead on becoming better.”               

To simplify things going forward, I’ll call this output-centric approach to work the craftsman mindset.               
Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.     

there’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.               

This focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback provides the core of a more universal principle—one that I increasingly came to believe provides the key to successfully acquiring career capital in almost any field.   

The researchers discovered that the players who became grand masters spent five times more hours dedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level.               

Put another way, if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.               

“I have a never-ending thirst to get better,” he said. “It’s like a sport, you have to practice and you have to study.”               

The other thing I noticed about Alex is that this learning is not done in isolation: “You need to be constantly soliciting feedback from colleagues and professionals” 

On the sample spreadsheet he sent me, he divides his activities into two categories: hard to change (i.e., weekly commitments he can’t avoid) and highly changeable (i.e., self-directed activities that he controls).              
Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands…. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.               

This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good.” If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”               

When no one cares what you do with your working life, you probably don’t have enough career capital to do anything interesting. But once you do have this capital, as Lulu and Lewis discovered, you’ve become valuable enough that your employer will resist your efforts.

This is what I came to think of as the second control trap: The Second Control Trap The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.               

“I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules,” he said. “Do what people are willing to pay for.”               

“Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”     

A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough—it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge—the only place where these missions become visible.           

According to popular legend, Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize–winning theoretical physicist, scored only a slightly above-average IQ of 125 when he was tested in high school. In his memoirs, however, we find hints of how he rose from modest intelligence to genius, when he talks about his compulsion to tear down important papers and mathematical concepts until he could understand the concepts from the bottom up. It’s possible, in other words, that his amazing intellect was less about a gift from God and more about a dedication to deliberate practice.               

To combat this resistance, I deployed two types of structure. The first type was time structure: “I am going to work on this for one hour,” I would tell myself. “I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world.”               

More important than these small successes, however, was the new mindset this test case introduced. Strain, I now accepted, was good. Instead of seeing this discomfort as a sensation to avoid, I began to understand it the same way that a body builder understands muscle burn: a sign that you’re doing something right.               

Here’s the routine: Once a week I require myself to summarize in my “bible” a paper I think might be relevant to my research. This summary must include a description of the result, how it compares to previous work, and the main strategies used to obtain it.           

At this stage in its growth, the computer science department was more focused on developing star researchers than trying to hire them away. In other words, if I published good results in good venues, I could stay. Without pressure to choose a safe, pre-existing area to dominate, I would therefore have much more flexibility in how my research program unfolded.               

As you might recall, a little bet, in the setting of mission exploration, has the following characteristics: It’s a project small enough to be completed in less than a month. It forces you to create new value (e.g., master a new skill and produce new results that didn’t exist before). It produces a concrete result that you can use to gather concrete feedback.   

To accomplish this goal, let the rules I uncovered guide you. Don’t obsess over discovering your true calling. Instead, master rare and valuable skills. Once you build up the career capital that these skills generate, invest it wisely. Use it to acquire control over what you do and how you do it, and to identify and act on a life-changing mission. This philosophy is less sexy than the fantasy of dropping everything to go live among the monks in the mountains, but it’s also a philosophy that has been shown time and again to actually work.

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